UPDATE: This Saturday, 4 July, Emily Roux – along with scores of other London restaurateurs – is opening her doors for the first time in three months. Caractère in Notting Hill first opened in early 2019 and quickly gained a loyal following among well-heeled locals who have no shortage of smart (and Michelin-starred) options on their doorstep.
Those locals have remained loyal. “We’re fully booked for Saturday,” Roux tells me. Caractère will run at half capacity – about 50 covers – and all staff will be fully masked (masks aren’t compulsory under government guidelines but Roux feels that “people expect staff to wear them in a small enclosed place”). But Saturday night isn’t going to be a party – Roux is adamant that it will be “normal service as much as possible.” So how does she feel about welcoming guests after the long hiatus? “Excited, definitely, and maybe a bit apprehensive about getting back to work for the first time in three months.”
She and her husband Diego Ferrari, her partner in the business, haven’t been sitting still during lockdown. For a start they have a new baby boy, their first, and she relished the time they have had together as a family. “We may work together, but this is frankly the only time, probably until I retire, that I will spend so much time with my husband. To sit down and have a meal and a drink together is quite rare – once in a lifetime, really.”
They’ve also been cooking – “trying out new dishes” – and she’s been talking almost daily with her father, Michel Roux, who she values highly for his “nearly 50 years experience of the industry. We have differing views but we agree on so many things.”
Apart from reopening, what is she looking forward to most about coming out of lockdown? “Oh, so many things. But mainly being able to go out and have dinner with the family. We love Chinese and Japanese. Dim sum and sushi – I can’t wait.”
Alicia Miller interviewed Roux and Ferrari at Caractère for Issue 5 of Club Oenologique, published in March 2020.
The family pedigree is impeccable. She’s the daughter of famed chef and TV personality Michel Roux Jr, owner of London’s lauded Le Gavroche, and the granddaughter of Albert Roux, co-founder of the triple-Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn in Bray. But 28-year- old Emily Roux is keen to forge her own path in the culinary world.
‘Caractère is very different to Le Gavroche,’ she says when I meet her at the cosy Notting Hill restaurant she has been running for a year and a half with her husband, Diego Ferrari. ‘My father’s restaurant is very luxurious; it’s an experience. We wanted to create something more friendly, low-key and neighbourhoody, where people feel comfortable and can have a laugh with the waiters. We want a family ambience, but still very good food – not just a place for special occasions.’ Oof – take that, Michel.
Notting Hill, of course, isn’t your average neighbourhood. It’s one of London’s most exclusive postcodes, but Caractère’s cushy banquettes and whitewashed brick walls are a deliberate departure from the ‘men-must-wear-jackets’ formality of Mayfair’s Le Gavroche. ‘No one is going to keep coming back to my restaurant just because of my surname,’ says Roux. ‘You’re only as good as the last meal you serve, and making a name for ourselves outside of the Roux family dynasty is massively important to us as chefs and business owners. We are doing it our way, the two of us are a team,’ she says, glancing over at her husband. The message, it seems, is that this is about Emily and Diego, rather than Emily and her dad.
Family, nonetheless, has always been central to Roux’s experience with restaurants. She grew up in the kitchens of her father’s two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, and she doesn’t underplay the significance or benefits. ‘I would stay the whole Saturday during service,’ she says. ‘I loved the camaraderie and ambience of that kitchen.’ She would sit in the corner, volunteering to peel potatoes or carrots for hours. And she loved bonding with the staff. She was ‘very close’ to Monica Galetti, the former Le Gavroche senior sous-chef and now MasterChef judge. ‘On one birthday she hid a gift for me in the kitchen; I searched everywhere. It was a little stuffed dog toy, hidden in a massive 50kg container of flour!’
Having a top chef for a father – and a food-loving mother who was also an excellent cook – Roux was lucky to get an early schooling at the world’s finest restaurants. ‘I’ve eaten in so many fantastic places. From a very young age I would eat snails, I would try oysters. You name it, I loved it.’ Though she wasn’t always gripped. Once, when her parents were dining at the triple-Michelin-starred Arzak in San Sebastián, she fell asleep. ‘The staff were so kind. They rallied all the pillows they could and made a little bed for me under the table – first I had great food and then, apparently, a great sleep.’
It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the culinary world. ‘Emily always wanted to follow in our footsteps,’ says Michel. She trained at the Paul Bocuse Institute in France and worked for top chefs such as Alain Ducasse. So surely the Roux surname helped give her a head start? ‘I’ve always been conscious to make sure my family name hasn’t been the reason for my success,’ says Emily. ‘I’ve worked hard to gain experience. Anyhow, in France, Roux is such a common name there’s no reason anyone would assume who my family are.’
She met Diego while working at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. They lived in Paris, then came to London, where Diego worked Le Gavroche’s stoves as head chef under the watchful eyes of his future father-in-law. Was it strange her dad being his boss? ‘I think it went very well,’ says Emily, diplomatically. ‘They’ve always got on well, and it stays professional when you’re at work.’
For his part, Michel says he is ‘so proud to see what Emily has so far achieved with Diego’. And his support seems to be more valuable now than when Emily was trying to establish herself. ‘My father has given me advice every single day since I was born,’ says Emily. ‘But opening a restaurant in London presents huge challenges. Rent prices are cripplingly expensive; there are fears over Brexit, and finding an excellent team is difficult enough as it is. So, being from a family of restaurant owners meant we were well-briefed. Being a Roux really came into its own when it came to tips about opening.’
Has Michel also shared advice on managing the more sensitive issues of running a family business, especially when the going gets tough? ‘Before opening I was scared about working so closely with my husband,’ says Emily. ‘But I enjoy it. It’s wonderful to have someone there when you need it. If it’s a bad day, you always have someone to say “we’re in this together, we’ve worked so hard”. It keeps you going and motivated. I don’t know what I would have done without him.’
What does Diego like most about working with Emily? ‘Having that person you can trust 100%, eyes closed – that’s very helpful.’ But, with all the pressures of running a restaurant – Diego in the kitchen, Emily taking care of pretty much everything else – surely there must be stressful moments? All families argue – what sets them off?
‘It’s usually what to cook at home,’ says Emily. Diego prefers meat, while Emily loves fish and pasta. Their tastes have informed the menu, a kind of modern Anglo- French-Italian mash-up – they love to cook with British produce but their dishes are inspired by French and Italian cuisine. The restaurant is called Caractère ‘because it draws from both of their characters’. Their star dish, which locals can’t seem to get enough of, is a celeriac cacio e pepe – delicate ribbons of the root vegetable in an oozy cheese and black pepper sauce. Other standouts include slow-cooked pork cheek ravioli with crispy kale and trompettes; or bergamot and lemon tartelette with hazelnut praline and preserved lemon.
Caractère is obviously getting the food right. And most of the staff have been there ‘since day one’ – a rarity in London. Emily says: ‘We all spend a lot of hours working together during the week. We have lunch together, dinner together. We need to have fun; we need to have a good ambience. And a family feel – that’s vitally important.’
There has to be more to keep staff happy than feeding them well? ‘Diego and I try to tell them the door is always open – come and talk to us about whatever problem you may have, whether it’s inside the restaurant or personal. So far it’s worked.’ The Roux dynasty seems to be in good hands. So will the next generation, if and when it arrives, follow the same path? Emily looks at Diego. ‘Definitely,’ she says, with preternatural certainty. A month after the interview, I learn that Roux is pregnant.
A brief history of the Roux dynasty
- After both training as pâtissiers in the 1950s, brothers Albert and Michel Roux, born to a family of charcutiers in Charles, France, travelled to London to seek their fortunes. It was a sign of things to come that Albert was employed as Nancy Astor’s private chef while Michel worked for the Rothschilds.
- In 1967 the two opened Le Gavroche in Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea, taking turns to work in the kitchen and dining room. (The restaurant moved to its current home on Upper Brook St, Mayfair, in 1981.)
- Five years later the brothers bought a traditional English pub in Bray, Berkshire, and created restaurant and cocktail bar The Waterside Inn.
- In 1974, both Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn won a Michelin star, each gaining a second in 1977. Le Gavroche attained three-star status in 1982 while The Waterside was so honoured in 1985 – an accolade it retains today (Le Gavroche returned to two-star status in 1993).
- Among graduates from the kitchens of Le Gavroche are Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, as well as Albert’s son, Michel Roux Jr, and Michel’s son, Alain.
- The Roux brothers split the business in 1986, Albert taking on Le Gavroche and Michel Sr the Waterside Inn.
- Today Michel Jr runs the London restaurant while Alain is resident in Bray, both their fathers having retired from the day-to-day running of the restaurants.
- Albert Roux (OBE) continues to oversee restaurants around the world through Chez Roux, while Michel Sr (OBE) is active in consultancy and lecturing. Both remain patrons of the Roux Scholarship, which they founded in 1985 to give aspiring chefs the chance to work in some of the world’s most highly regarded restaurants; Alain and Michel Jr took over as joint chairmen in 2016.